Anna Robinson’s third collection is a study of working-class life in London SE1 – south of the river, behind the South Bank, beyond Waterloo station, below the radar. Blake's Lambeth.
Whatsname Street is a celebration of street-life, bits and bobs, loose change, and the poetry of Class. It’s a people’s history of one particular housing estate as told by its tenants, combining oral history, archive records and layered memory – weddings and wash days, street-parties and trips to the seaside, and above all the changing and changeless demands of work, poverty and inequality, the patience of the poor and the impatience of History.
Author photo: Adrian Leca
History is and was and so is that patch of pavement where one tiny leaf shape is never wet no matter how much rain. It’s in the shards of clay pipes on the banks of the Thames and the salt-glaze fragments. It’s in the loose change in my pocket and the fact that there is never any loose change in my pocket. It’s in the bits and bobs, the fairy on the rock cake, at the foot of our stairs. It’s t’ick as a coddle and mild as milk. There’s a king and queen and offspring and they’re effing and blinding or not – ‘cause that’s common! It’s in the darkness, the rose moon, a clear deep navy sky and a box of Price’s candles to light the longest street market in London where we ply, plight and sing a bit. It’s in the pain of home and the urge to command that pain with real true facts. It is what it is, although that’s contentious. It’s a bumble bee, a Brussels sprout, and sometimes, even, a brown-tail moth.
How many bodies have lain in this room – letting the sleep breath rise, coming to with the sun, letting out groans as they shift their legs. One, then the other. Have risen, letting their wake breath rise, steady, and lit a flame – lifted or switched on a kettle. Their hands, one then the other, steady. Found bread in a container for bread while the lit flame burns under the kettle, found some butter in a container for butter. Their hands: one then the other, steady, spreading what tastes they can bear.
with Dawn, as she is the only one who can no longer tell a different story. Dawn dies, and because we love her exactly the way we should, her funeral is just so. There are so many flowers, they will pull her out of the block to the waiting hearse and the effort needed to do this will make it seem as if she has been here all her life – and even if they know, no-one will choose this moment to mention that she was, in fact, born in Battersea and came here in the sixties, when it was all over, and we were mostly just getting older and not really swinging much at all.
Fog, drifting in from the river, bends sound and on days like that we hear the chimes of Big Ben or Waterloo Station announcements in our beds, or a voice, shouting, That’s a lie! across the backyards and thirty odd years. The voice is mine and the day isn’t foggy; bright sun and our kitchen window wide open. Miss C. is leaning over a wall that isn’t there now, telling Olive something scandalous about us; the sound drifts up under its own steam. As I lean out and shout, Olive ducks, runs, wanting none of it, she’s no gossip. Miss C. hates our youth, our ease, our lack of carpet, which is fair enough. I tell her, I know our floors are thin, I hear you screaming at your mother! That’s not fair! she says, and yes, it wasn’t. I was clumsy and cack-tongued that day, I hadn’t meant she shouldn’t shout at her demented mother, I simply meant in flats the horizon is thinner and that’s just how it is. There’s something in the air that makes all sound bend like its coming from us and one night she storms up to find the person drilling at midnight is not us, but in the block next door. She was kind when the cat was ill, and soon after stopped complaining. She told me they’d had a pub: something to do with Charlie Chaplin. After her mother died, the fog came for her, but there was no one to care or yell at her; just somewhere to shove her forehead until all her disappointments took hold.
What did they (our builders) intend for us when they left us unnamed, a small square of streets (named for streets that went before them) surrounded by ever larger streets and buildings – so one day we wake up (innocent and naked) and are so shrunk we need to know our names, need to say them (collectively), if only to say why we are here and in the way and what we mean by that. (Fecktard!) At least one of us will have to tell it with footnotes, fully referenced (for academic veracity) in the name of a man, born half a mile away, whose father and seven siblings died in a plague not really worth a mention. No wonder he loves his in text references, no wonder I struggle to write them; shrinking as I am (a tiny Disney house surrounded by towers) on a daily basis (yes, daily, every blinking day).
(Samuel: 1995) Vertiginous, he says, like when, at nightfall, I fly up and out of myself and see that spot where she fell. The falling was neither the beginning nor the end of her. It was simply when we knew. There was a bleed on her brain. I don’t know when it started. She was asleep sitting in her chair in the daytime when I popped round the day before, something I’d never seen her do, and it made a frail thing of her that was so much older than she would ever be. She’d had a good morning. It was a sunny day, and she wore a new yellow top that had come from the catalogue. She went to the library (the one the council has just closed) to run a new reading group. On the way, she’d had a coffee down the market, at an outside table. I know this because at least four people seem to believe they’d had a coffee with her when in the aftermath they couldn’t get their heads round it: ‘but, I saw her this morning... coffee... the Marsh’. Vertiginous, he says, and the symptoms, no wonder she fell. It isn’t where she died, that spot. That was the next day, in a hospital bed, with her daughters at her side. And when she fell, it wasn’t dusk, more lunchtime. But it’s true. That’s when it happens, dusk. I fly up, out of myself and see that leaf-shaped spot.
‘Immerses us in a Lambeth housing estate over generations: from the smells of cabbage, beets, lard, and piss, to the sounds of dialect, neighbours shouting, and the accordion, to the sights of gutters, mould, pinafores, and farthings. A wonderfully nuanced evocation of a place and its people over time.’
‘There is honour, praise, and a stark beauty to these poems, enshrining the ordinary into an extraordinary with casual ease and unflinching frankness. Pulses with cockney vernacular, it’s an elegy for working class communities. There is something reminiscent of William Blake’s ‘Holy Thursday’ in these poetic portraits of praise for a lost way of life.’
‘a refreshing collection. Anyone who has grown up with experience of the poorer parts of our towns and cities will recognise the lives of the characters in Robinson’s book. A great achievement.’